#50. For Bread Alone (Mohamed Choukri)

Book: For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri; translated from the Arabic by Paul Bowles

Genre and Year of Publication: Autobiography; English translation 1973

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s the autobiography / memoir of a boy born into a poor family in Morocco in 1935, who experiences extreme hardship, including near-starvation; runs away from his violent father at age 11 and becomes a street-kid, involved in stealing, smuggling and prostitution; and at age 20 meets [in jail] someone who encourages him to learn to read and write.  (He later went on to be professor of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier, but the book stops at age 20; later books take up the story).

Comments: I bought this book in a second-hand shop specifically with the African reading challenge 2014 in mind.  But then I avoided it for several months, fearing the theme, not wanting to read about poverty and hardship, not wishing to get emotionally wrecked by the desperation described in the blurb.  However, when I did pick it up and open the cover, I whizzed through the book and did not find it at all emotionally manipulative.  Quite the contrary, it is rather understated.  The author lets the facts speak for themselves.  He does not try to impose his own adult, educated conclusions on the events surrounding his youth.  Neither is he, apparently, angry or self-pitying. 

This book was banned in Morocco from 1983 to 2000.  It is not difficult to see why.  No country, let alone a Muslim country, would be happy to see an account of one of its youths involving frequent near-starvation (one of the hardest parts of the book to read is about the starving teenager diving into sewage-filled water to retrieve and eat bread that someone had thrown away), sex, alcohol, and drugs.  And there is a LOT of sex.  From the (relatively innocent – ?) pre-pubescent boy who climbs a tree to spy on a girl bathing naked, to fantasies about various older women, to masturbation, sex with prostitutes, sex as a prostitute, sex with a tree (yes)… But while there is a lot of it, the scenes are not overly drawn-out nor especially graphic.

I find it strange that an error which went uncorrected in the translator’s introduction should be copied in various reviews around the internet without comment or note.  The lines read: “Choukri grew up under conditions of poverty excessive even for Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition and neglect.  Another brother was killed outright by Choukri’s father in an access of hunger and desperation.”  In the last line, the word should, of course, be “excess”, not “access”.

One of the lines which most struck me in the book concerned the death of one of the other siblings.  Choukri writes, “One day my little brother Achor died.  His death left me with no feeling of regret.  I had heard him crying and seen him crawling, but I had never thought of him as another person.”

It is all too easy not to think of certain people, or classes of people, as persons.  Choukri’s story certainly makes him a very real person, though if I had met him as youth I would probably have tried to avoid him, or not to connect with him.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

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